The 747, flight attendants and the “60-foot rule”

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A flurry of recent stories about United Airlines and Delta Air Lines retiring their fleets of Boeing 747 passenger planes focused on the role the widebody – dubbed the “Queen of the Skies” – played in aviation history and in the lives of passengers and crew members who have flown on the jumbo jet over the years.

Pan American World Airways introduced the aircraft into commercial service in January 1970 and, with it, a bevy of firsts for commercial passenger planes, including twin aisles, a set of stairs leading to an upper deck, lounges where passengers could gather during the flight, and the unusual and now-iconic hump on the top of the plane.

An important side-story from 747 history is how opposition to a 1984 plan by Boeing to decrease the number of emergency evacuation exits on the aircraft led to an important worldwide safety standard for all airplanes that is known as the “60-foot rule.”

The “60-foot rule” is 14 CFR 25.807(f)(4), “For an airplane that is required to have more than one passenger emergency exit for each side of the fuselage, no passenger emergency exit shall be more than 60 feet from any adjacent passenger emergency exit on the same side of the same deck of the fuselage, as measured parallel to the airplane’s longitudinal axis between the nearest exit edges.”- Federal Aviation Administration

Runway Girl Network spoke with Sara Nelson, a United Airlines flights attendant and International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, about the role unions representing pilots and flight attendants had in fighting for the establishment of the 60-foot rule and its meaning for passenger safety.

“In 1984, Boeing approached the Federal Aviation Administration and asked it to approve a request to remove two emergency evacuation exits from the over wing exits,” said Nelson.

Removing those doors would have allowed Boeing to add more seats on the popular jumbo jet, but both pilots and flight attendants raised concerns to the FAA. They believed that loss of those doors would compromise passenger safety.

“It was a structural issue of not having enough exits located close enough to where passengers were seated to be able to get them up to an exit and out the door in time,” said Nelson, “We pushed back against Boeing’s request and provided data that showed [removing the doors] would create a problem for getting everyone off the aircraft in 90 seconds,” – the time-limit in which airline manufacturers must prove to the FAA that an aircraft can be fully evacuated.

In June 1985 the unions provided expert testimony to the Public Works and Transportation Committee and, ultimately, the FAA did not allow the removal of the exits.

“We continued to prod the FAA,” said Nelson, “And in 1988 they put in place a new rule of exits being no more than 60 feet apart.”

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A 1988 New York Times story about the ruling noted that foreign carriers operating 747s would not have been required to honor the FAA’s 60-foot rule, but that “Foreign authorities commonly follow the agency’s lead in operation of American-built planes” and that pressure to adopt the same ruling was likely to arise in countries outside the United States.

Boeing objected to the ruling, but ultimately, the 60-foot rule became a requirement for every aircraft that flies around the world.

Nelson credits flight attendants, especially, with making the rule a reality.

“No one knows the aircraft cabin better than flight attendants. We are certified safety professionals and the government requires us to be on board specifically to be able to evacuate passengers in the required 90 seconds,” said Nelson, “We are the experts on the subject and we were the ones to speak up because this is the at the center of what we do.”

A Boeing historian, through the airframer’s PR, did not recollect the events which transpired around the “60-foot rule”.

Photo at top credited to Boeing

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